When people say “vintage” they usually mean “old, yet interesting”. There’s vintage clothes, vintage furniture and vintage music: stuff from a different time period that’s somehow become really cool in the present. But what does it mean when a champagne bottle is labelled as vintage? Does it mean the champagne is old? High quality? Made for hipsters with man buns? No, no & possibly. In this article, let’s explore the words vintage champagne and non vintage champagne, and put them in the right context.
Vintage champagne and non vintage champagne- a definition
In the context of winemaking, “vintage” has little to do with “old”. The word stands for the grape picking process and the production of wine as an end-product. This makes sense, as the word vintage contains vin which means wine in French. When you combine the word vintage with “wine” or “champagne”, the meaning changes, though. A vintage wine or champagne is made from grapes that were all grown, picked and harvested in the same year. In wine, this is nothing new: when reading the label of a wine bottle, you’ll immediately notice the year that the wine was made. Vintage champagne is less common, as most champagnes are blends, made with grapes from multiple harvests.
In wine- vintage matters
In movies with fancy people in them, harvest years often sound like a big deal. Sommeliers say things like “I have an excellent ’89 Haut-Brion that you’ll find quite interesting, sir”, by which they mean they have a Bordeaux wine, made by winery Chateau Haut-Brion from the year 1989 that is of exceptionally high quality. This quality is thanks to a great harvest in the production year 1989, which was sunny, dry and remarkably hot. As wine is usually made from one single harvest year, circumstances in that particular year have a huge influence on quality and flavour. That’s where all the fuss comes from.
Fun fact: in France, vintage wine and champagne are called millésimes, coming from the French word “mille” which simply means “year” in French.
Vintage champagne- is that a thing?
In champagne, different rules apply. In the northern region Champagne-Ardenne, the cold and wet weather circumstances can really sabotage a harvest, meaning it’s not always possible to depend on grapes coming from one single harvest year. This is why most champagnes are blends: still réserve wines (as they’re being “reserved” for later) made from grapes that come from different harvest years. Thanks to these blends, cellar masters can level out the difficulties of a specific harvest. Sometimes, a harvest brings forth grapes that are relatively high in acidity, which can be made undone by blending the grapes with a harvest that brought forth sweeter grapes. This blending is true craftsmanship, and skilled cellar masters can turn mediocre still wines into one spectacular champagne.
Millésime or vintage champagne
However, the Champagne region too has great harvest years. In fact, 2018, 2019 and 2020 were all of outstanding quality. For example, 2020 was a dry and hot year without too much frost or hail. This resulted in a harvest that was high quality, especially when it came to Pinot Noir. When harvests are this good, champagne producers can opt to make vintage champagne (millésime champagne). This means they’ll only use the latest harvest without adding any réserve wine. Oddly enough, poor harvest can lead to vintage champagne too. In 1996, for example, a large percentage of the harvest was destroyed by hail, followed by a hot and sunny summer. The grapes that survived the hail didn’t have to share nutrients with too many other grapes. The result: a small yet outstanding harvest that was perfect for vintage champagne.
Are vintage champagnes better than non-vintage champagnes?
Well, you’d think that. But no! Vintage versus non vintage is just one of the many factors that impact flavour. Or to quote Guillaume Selosse: “Tout dépend des circonstances!” There’s really good N.V. champagne and really bad vintage champagne. And the other way around. Apart from harvest year, you also have to take into account other factors. Think about soil health, the influence of organic or biodynamic principles, use of chemicals and grams of sugar added (=dosage). And don’t forgot about the skills of the cellar master! As I explained earlier, cellar masters have a huge impact on quality. In fact, many champagne houses take pride in their cellar master’s way of working. If they’re really good, their methods result in signature champagnes that are unique to the house.
In between champagnes: Soleras and millésime Blends
Apart from millésime (or vintage champagne) and non vintage champagne, there’s also an in-between kind which is called a Solera. A Solera champagne is made with the Solera system, AKA “the perpetual system”. The Solera system was invented in Spain where it’s used to age sherry. Basically, what champagne producers do when making a Solera, is they create an everlasting blend by adding the newest harvest to a tank of réserve wines. As Xavier Berdin of champagne house Palmer & Co. describes it: “the old wine educates the young wine.” Another in-between champagne kind is created by blending two millésimes. Many Agrapart champagnes are made this way, such as 7 Crus and Terroirs. The big advantage is that you can improve champagne flavour and quality by making the perfect blend, but you still get the unique character of a millésime.
Don’t be fooled
And there you have it: the difference between vintage and non vintage champagne, plus two in-between champagnes (which in theory are still non vintage of course). They all come with their own challenges, as millésimes need an exceptional harvest and blends need a master blender. And that’s the beauty of it! Great vintage champagne will tell you all about the harvest year, about sunlight and rain and frost. Non vintage champagne, in turn, can be a masterpiece of blended flavours. So don’t pick sides and play for both teams. No one will mind.